The Politics of Dirty Dancing, 25 Years Later

Filmmaker Eleanor Bergstein discusses the battles the film is still fighting on its 25th anniversary.

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Baby is not the only thing nobody puts in a corner. On the 25th anniversary of its release, Dirty Dancing rings remarkably relevant—and not just because of its grand, "Time of Your Life" finale and the warmly paternal Jerry Orbach (come on, those things are timeless).

With a national conversation darting from "class warfare" to the "war on women," from the GOP's inclusion of a no exception anti-abortion amendment on its platform to VP pick Paul Ryan's affinity for Ayn Rand, Dirty Dancing's political subtext that explores cross-socioeconomic tensions (Fountainhead reference included) and pre-Roe v. Wade America seems almost canny a quarter-century later. Even Mickey & Sylvia's "Love is Strange" which sets an iconic dance scene, got a 2012 shout-out in "Back in Time," a recent Pitbull single.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

"After all these years, the sad thing is that these are still issues, and the lovely thing is that people are seeing that in this," says Eleanor Bergstein, who wrote and co-produced the film.

When Dirty Dancing was made in the late '80s, Bergstein was told the summer romance didn't need the darker political dimensions that harkened back to the previous generation.

"When I made the movie, there was a sense that, hey, all those battles were fought. Why are you talking about these things that don't matter anymore? We won all these battles," recalls Bergstein.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Is There a Republican 'War on Women'?]

Dirty Dancing takes place in the summer of 1963—the last summer of liberalism," as Bergstein calls it—before JFK's assassination and the Beatles' U.S. invasion. "You thought you could reach out your hand, and if your heart was pure, you thought you could change the world forever."

Which is exactly the mindset of Frances "Baby" Houseman, played by Jennifer Grey, who is spending her last summer before college—where she will study economics, not English—with her family at an upstate New York resort. Baby infiltrates the countercultural upstairs-downstairs scene of the hotel staff, who spend their off-hours "dirty dancing" in their own section of the camp. When Penny, one of the dancers, becomes pregnant, Baby both helps pay for her illegal abortion and steps in as Johnny Castle's (played by the late Patrick Swayze) dancing partner when the botched procedure leaves her too incapacitated to dance herself.

Though she wouldn't call the film pro-abortion—"It's about how tragic and terrible it is if you don't have a choice," Bergstein explains—it was crucial to her that the subplot was included, even in 1987 when Roe V. Wade was thought to be a done deal.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

"I didn't think it was over, I didn't think we were home free, and I didn't think it was going to be a pro-choice world. It seemed to me that young women thought that all their battles had been won already."

She believes an uplifting, mainstream, romance like Dirty Dancing does a better job of delivering that message implicitly rather than an explicitly pro-abortion documentary or drama. "If you really want to change minds and hearts, have people come in for another reason."

Bergstein knew the abortion subplot would likely ruffle corporate feathers—Clearasil withdrew a sponsorship of the film over it.

"I rhythm-ed it into the plot so precisely that if you tried to take it out—which later the studio did try to take it out when the film was all made—you can't, because the film falls apart."

She also described the pre-Roe v. Wade procedure in particularly graphic language—"dirty knife, folding table, I could hear her screaming from the hallway," says the character who takes Penny to the clinic. Writing for a generation that could assume Penny would just go to her local Planned Parenthood, "I had to make them in some way understand what the world was like before the world they were inhabiting at the moment," says Bergstein.

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